Men Improve With The Years: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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      The central theme of Men Improve with the Years is old age. It evinces the common belief that man goes on attaining wisdom as he grows in age. The poet begins with a sense of satisfaction derived as he grows old for he will also “improve”:

Delighted to be but wise,
For men improve with the years

      He is aware of his physical decrepitude, aware of his age, and looks at the young girl with the contemplative detachment appropriate to an old man. He may have lost his youthful zest and vigor, but there is consolation in the newly gained wisdom that age has given him.

      Suddenly the mood changes. Yeats seems to realize that he is trying to cheat himself. He asks hesitantly if what he is stating regarding old age is truth or if he is indulging in some kind of dream. He reaches the conclusion that he at least has not improved with years, in the sense of outgrowing sensual desire. He still retains the desires of youth, though he has grown old physically. He has grown old among dreams. He is a weather-worn, cold and old man incapable of passion. He wishes he had met Iseult when he had been young with fiery passion and warm blood flowing in his veins.

Critical Analysis


      Men Improve with the Years was published in the volume of poetry “The Wild Swans at Coole” (1919). Written in July 1916, it is concerned with Yeats’ feelings towards Iseult Gonne, Maud Gonne’s adopted daughter. Yeats liad failed in his proposal to aud Gonne. Now he fell in love with Iseult. She was sixteen and he forty-five when he first met her. She came to represent what Maud Gone had once been to Yeats. In 1916, and again in 1917, he proposed marriage to her, but was refused. In October 1917, he married Miss Hyde Less. Ten apparently he realized how inappropriate the affair with Iseult was. But in Men Improve with the Years his passion or Iseult has not yet been overcome.

Critical Appreciation

      Most of the poems in the collection “The Wild Swans at Coole” deal with death and old age. This may have been due to the harsh circumstances of the years after the First World War, when several people he had known died (including Macbride, Maud Gonne’s husband, Hugh Lane, Robert Gregory), and he was finally rejected by Maud Gonne, and later by Iseult. Growing old is the theme of Men Improve with the Years for Yeats now felt that “the living beauty is for younger men.”

      The belief that men improve with the years, however does not ring quite true to Yeats’s mind. Thus, though the poem begins by suggesting that his delight in the young girl (Iseult) is purely aesthetic, Yeats cannot help re-examining the view. He wonders if he is not merely indulging in a dream. He is honest, and realizes that he is merely deceiving himself. He rejects the temptation of deceptive complacency. He admits that he has not improved with age, at least is overcoming his desire. He has lost his youth but sensual desire remains. He may have become wise but he finds he cannot live with wisdom alone. The poem is one of self-rebuke.

      Yeats comments ironically on his own improvement with age. Age’s wisdom gives him possibilities of aesthetic delight in his contemplation of a girl (Iseult Gonne), but “burning youth” is gone. His once passionate flesh—now “weather-worn”—has hardened to cold marble. The irony in the poem suggests that the triton worn out with dreams may have wisdom on his side, and withering away may have as much to commend it as dying self-expression.

      Yeats has extended the limits of the lyric far beyond its customary range. He achieves a strange intensity through his utter, impeccable artistic integrity. Brevity combines with complexity for effect. In Men Improve with the Years, he achieves effective shift in tone—from the calm quietude of

Delighted to be but wise,
For men improve with years;

      There is a change of mood to a hesitant half-whisper:

And yet, and yet,
Is this my dream, or the truth?

      Then comes to poignant, burning intensity in the lines:

O would that we had met
When I had my burning youth!

      The phrase about the “weather-worn marble triton” has different tonal effects in different emotional contexts. In the beginning it suggests a mood of calm serenity; in the end it conveys a sense of Pathetic desperation.

      The evocative power of the images and their overtones gives beauty to the poem. The lines

A weather-worn marble triton
Among the streams

      Convey the image of waves splashing on the shore and the sound of water against weather-beaten rocks.

Critical Explanation

      Among dreams: i.e., the fantasies an thoughts which are divorced from reality. Burning youth: The period of youth is always associated with passion and violent emotions, hence “burning.” Weather worn: weather-beaten, implying “aged.” Marble: a stone (and hence suggesting coldness and an incapacity to feel deeply). Triton: a merman (Greek myth); a creature with a man’s body above the waist and the body of a fish below the waist.

      A weather-worn, marble triton: The phrase evokes a wide range of overtones. The “weather-worn marble” suggests old age, experience, coldness, incapacity to feel. The mythical association of Triton brings in fresh overtones. The shape (half man and half-fish) suggests some kind of lack—perhaps the sexual incapacity of old age which would match the weather-beaten coldness of marble. At the same time, in Greek myth, Triton by blowing in his seashell brought about storms or calms and assisted the Argonauts when their ship went ashore.

      Thus, there is an image not only of age and wisdom, but also superhuman power. The associative meaning becomes more and more complex. There is a suggestion that the poet may be worn with old age, but he can still evoke powers to work miracles—perhaps, it refers to his power of creating poetry.

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